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Pioneering approach marks 40 years of success

Updated: 2022-04-15 08:58 ( China Daily )
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The 40th anniversary of the reestablishment of Peking University's sociology department, ranked 23rd on QS World University Rankings by Subject 2022, was marked on Saturday. The department comes second in Asia on the ranking, following the National University of Singapore.

The four decades have seen the Peking University department's nearly 4,000 graduates contribute to research institutions, government bodies, enterprises, or working as photographers, fashion designers and writers, among other careers. More than 400 of them are engaged in sociological research and teaching, with over 90 becoming professors or research fellows, according to a survey of around 3,000 graduates.

Looking back, Zhou Feizhou, head of the department, attributes the achievements to an academic tradition that emphasizes the importance of field study and pays close attention to rural development of China.

The tradition dates back to the founding of the department's predecessor, the sociology department of Yenching University, in 1922. It was the first institution to cultivate sociology postgraduates in China. It gathered a group of influential sociologists, pioneering in research on grassroots communities, as well as laying the foundation to build a discipline system.

In 1952, Yenching was closed, with part of it merged with Peking University, while sociological research and teaching were suspended around the country until its restoration in the late 1970s.

The sociology department of Peking University was officially reestablished in 1982, following efforts to keep up with Western academic trends, explore a proper curriculum system, and most importantly, to observe and explain the social changes from China's rapid urbanization and reform and opening-up.

Song Dandan, in her first year of a doctoral program, says the sociology department has been teaching her how to become a good researcher over the past eight years, from cultivating an awareness of problems, doing field research, analyzing, to writing. It's step-by-step work with frequent detours, overturning and reworking, but all the way through the teachers stand with them and they work together, she says. She is especially inspired by the teachers and their dedication and work.

"All the efforts to know about the past glory better is to help today's people figure out the future prospects of sociology as a social science discipline that originated in the West but is also a powerful tool to tell and understand China's social reality," Zhou says.

Taking up his post in 2019, Zhou, born in 1968, describes the responsibility of his generation as being to "develop sociology with Chinese characteristics".

In the 1920s, Wu Wenzao (1901-85), the first Chinese dean of Yenching's sociology department, explored the localization of sociology.

It's undeniable that most sociological theories and methods are imported, but Chinese sociologists have been looking at academic questions rooted in Chinese society, observing it with approaches suitable for Chinese reality, and giving explanatory conclusions to provide wisdom to improve social well-being of China, Zhou says.

They also resort to history to find cultural roots of a certain social structure. It's part of the legacy of Fei Xiaotong (1910-2005), one of the most outstanding Chinese sociologists who studied at the sociology department of Yenching in the early 1930s and contributed to the reestablishment of Peking University's sociology department.

Despite the great deal of field research work and theories on Chinese rural society and ethnic groups, Fei, in his late years, turned to focus on the strong relationship between sociology and Chinese culture and civilization.

In the late 1990s, he proposed his concept of cultural self-awareness as a solution to tackle challenges brought by globalization and enhance exchanges among different cultures. This idea has been guiding Chinese people to value their culture and history until today.

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